Initially when I encountered the violence in Islam, I said “This can’t be the true Islam” and I for years would push back arguing “No, this hadith here is unreliable”. For example, Muhammad says in Sahih Muslim that he has come to expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims. That doesn’t sound like the Muhammad I knew so I said “That can’t be a reliable tradition”. And then another tradition from Sahih Bukhari which says “I have been ordered to fight people until they testify that there is no God but Allah and only then will their lives and their property be saved from me.” This is from the most reliable collection of hadith and so I said “No, that can’t be reliable either.” As you continue, you find Muhammad beheading multiple hundreds of men at the same time, you see him distributing those men’s wives and children into slavery, you see him torturing people for money, you see all these atrocities within Muhammad’s life and not always in defensive battles by any means, offensively as well, and so after trying to dismiss many of these traditions I said “Let me piece together what’s going on here because if I dismiss all of these violent traditions then I’m basically dismissing the foundations of Islam. This is where I get my picture of Muhammad from.”
So looking just at the sources, what is the story, how do I reconstruct what Muhammad’s life is like and what you find when you do that. There certainly are peaceful passages in the Quran, we can’t ignore that like Surah 2:256 of the Quran which says there is no compulsion in religion. Those are often the ones that are quoted. Surah 109 which says “those of you who disbelieve, believe whatever you want and let us believe what we want.” One of the ones that’s so abused is Surah 5:32 of the Quran which says if you kill one person, it’s as if you kill all of mankind and if you save a life, you save all of mankind. When you start understanding the context, you realize that this is not the ultimate message of Islam. For example, Surah 5:32 of the Quran, says the first part of that verse “it was told to the Jews if you kill one person it’s as if you kill all mankind, if you save life, as if you save all mankind”, we find that in Sanhedrin 37a of the Babylonian Talmud. It’s not a teaching for Muslims, the next verse is the teaching for Muslims, which says “if anyone creates mischief in the land or strives against Allah or his messenger, crucify him or kill him.”
You start getting the context and what you find is in the first 13 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career, he lives a peaceful life. He has about a hundred followers by the end of that time, not that many, certainly doesn’t have a fighting force. Most of these people are of humble means and he doesn’t fight during that time. But then he’s given rule over a city, an entire city gives him the right to be arbiter. From that moment until his death, approximately nine to ten years, he personally participates in or deputizes 86 battles. That’s an average of nine plus battles a year and they culminate in intensity until the moment he dies. Surah 9 of the Quran is the last major chapter of the Quran to have been composed and it is the most expansively violent. This is the one that starts off by saying this is a disavowal of all the treaties we have with polytheists. Surah 9:5 “slay the infidels wherever you find them, lay siege to them, take them captive.” Surah 9:29 “fight the Jews and Christians until they pay you the poll tax and they feel subdued.” Surah 9:33 “Islam has been made to prevail over every religion.” Surah 9 is the most violent, it’s the culmination of the Islamic message, it’s the marching orders that Muhammad leaves Muslims with, which is why when he dies, Muslims conquer one third of the known world within 150 years. they would tell you in places if you do not convert then you have the option to pay a tax and if you don’t pay that tax, then we will fight you. It was expanding into territory. The first option people were given was conversion. The second option was paying tax and if that didn’t happen, then it was by the sword.
Interviewer: Do you basically see this as effectively the modus operandi of groups like Isis today?
Nabeel: This has been the classical understanding of Islam up until the fall of the Ottoman empire. No Muslim really ever had qualms with it. It’s what it was and this is the means through which Allah had given Muslims dominance around the world. It wasn’t until Muslims had,as a culture, flipped the script and started playing the defensive, the victim card, which they hadn’t done before. For example, many Muslims will point to the crusades now and say this is another example of Christian superiority complex trying to keep us down and oppressing us. The crusades were never even discussed in Islamic literature. There was no Muslim or Arabic word for crusades until Christians came up with one in the 19th century. It just wasn’t a part of the Islamic mentality until the Ottoman empire fell, the Islamic world started losing its power and then these discussions started happening. That’s why you don’t hear the phrase “Islam is a religion of peace” until the 20th century. It was never thought, that wasn’t the way Muslims had thought up until that time.